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Sunday, 2 March 2014

The rich, the poor and terror

In the muted, air-conditioned world of the wealthy, wars appear like a distant galaxy.

ISLAMABAD: On any given night in Karachi, the sound of gunfire booms through the darkness. It is a familiar sound whose regularity lulls the city’s restless children to sleep. Gunfire accompanies weddings, the stoic tell themselves, if they happen to be awake. In Karachi, the sounds of terror have become mixed up with the sounds of celebration.

The extent to which one hears the sounds of terror or feels the impact of the war against it also depends on whether one’s windows are open. In the muted, air-conditioned world of the wealthy, wars appear distant, the background to their own constant and unstoppable mirth.

In recent days, when talks with the Taliban, continued bombings, and failure of talks have grabbed headlines, advertisements for luxury cars, etc have occupied equal space.

Newspapers are not the only ones providing evidence of just how far away terror’s threats are to Pakistan’s wealthy. Karachi’s newly opened malls teem with shoppers. The prices are high, but so are the sales; the details of the latest air strike in the tribal areas and the latest twist in the saga of talks with the Taliban seem the problems of another place.

Pakistan has been at war with terror for over a decade now, and in the meantime, its citizens, at least its very wealthy citizens, have found many ways of putting distance between themselves and the country’s problems.

For kidnappings there are armed guards, for drive-by shootings there are bullet-proof cars, the lack of public entertainment is not a problem for those who throw lavish private parties.

Those are the ways of the rich and in status-conscious Pakistan they are popular. In order to be seen as rich, no part of life must be imagined as affected by the numerous inconveniences of a country at war.

No bomb blast, no killing, no series of attacks, hence, is egregious enough for a dinner to be cancelled or delayed, let alone months-long wedding preparations and celebrations for which planners have already been hired, security already arranged, millions already spent.

Being “unaffected” by terror has emerged, hence, as a status symbol. The less you pay terror’s costs, the more you can project just how little you need a functioning state, how happily insulated you are from the humdrum, the common, the ordinary. Those are all bad words dreaded by some even more than terrorism itself.

There are of course many millions in the country who cannot insulate themselves from terrorism or even engage in the pretence of doing so. The vast majority of Karachi’s 18 million population that regularly suffers bans on pillion riding are one constituency.

Few considering the purchase of prominently advertised Porsches and BMWs and imagining themselves abroad as they traipse up and down the corridors of ocean-front malls even know what such bans mean.

To the many millions who do, the ban on two men riding a motorcycle means complications in an already complex game of survival, the sudden inability to get a ride to a faraway job. To their families, it is the difference between an empty stomach and a full one.

Those are the proximate effects; others include the unnamed victims in daily hospital morgues – the more immediate casualties. The country has so many of those, over 40,000, whose families and dispossessed heirs cannot pretend to ignore terrorism.

When habits and behaviour are copied they become social norms, which in turn promote larger trends of societal behaviour. While successive governments have come under fire for ignoring the growing scourge within the country, scant attention has been paid to how ignoring terrorism has become an emerging social norm among the more endowed.

Social norms not only encourage emulation, they also drive cultural production. It is not too surprising then that when festivals celebrating this or that heritage are arranged in Pakistan, they take place in a contextual vacuum.

Their large budgets highlight this or that aspect of the musical, cultural or literary heritage of one or another part of the country, but never quite mention the elephant in the room or manage a formidable response to it.

According to recent statistics by the interior ministry, in the years between 2001 and 2013, Pakistan has seen 13,721 terrorist attacks, and is second only to Iraq as the country most in the throes of terrorist violence.

Data released by the US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror shows that in the year 2012, Pakistan surpassed even Afghanistan and Iraq in the total number of terror attacks.

Despite these numbers, not a single memorial has been constructed to the victims of terrorism in any part of Pakistan. It’s a telling omission – it shows a country that considers innocent lives as expendable.

Much analysis has been done in Pakistan on the origins and proclivities of our many brands of terrorist groups, the necessity of this or that government action and the possibility now of co-opting current militant enemies by conducting peace talks.

Despite this surfeit of analysis and awareness, little discussion exists on the fact that “terror” like much else is also a class issue in Pakistan, a burden that disproportionately victimises the poor, leaving the rich absolved, unaffected and able to imagine that they live in a land without fear, where ignoring terrorism is cool.

> The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Tags / Keywords: Regional , Pakistan , terror , society , rich and poor


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